Disruptive innovation and the emergence of the PLE+

I am currently in Kuala Lumpur doing a keynote at the 5th International Personal Learning Environment (PLE) conference. The focus of my talk is on the notion of ‘PLE+’, i.e. I want to argue that we are entering a third phase of learning environments; the first are Virtual Learning Environments (where tools are provided by the institutional system, and where the teacher chooses which are used for their courses), the second are Personal Learning Environments (where learners create their own learning space, mixing and matching institutional tools with cloud-based tools). The third generation, PLE+, builds on this and relates to the impact of ‘The Internet of Things’, and  seamless learning across different contexts, surfaces and devices; in other words, learning across digital and physical spaces.

I want to begin my talk by considering the notion of disruptive innovation, originally coined by Christensten:

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in a new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.

For me there are four key facets of disruptive innovation: change, something new, unexpected, and changing mindsets. We have seen many examples of technologies that have been disruptive in the last thirty years or so; from the Internet, through mobile devices and more recently Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

But first I want to step back. I like using an ecological metaphor in terms of technology adoption, drawing in particular on the work of Gibson, on affordances. So technologies may have potential affordances or characteristics but these will only be realised in relation to a particular individual, we need time to appropriate the technology into our practice. And sometimes a technology is subverted and used in unexpected ways. Below is a picture of an iPad that I took at a hotel I was at last week in Uppsala, Sweden. The iPad is being used to control the juice machine, you click on the pick of the juice you want, and then again to stop when the glass is full. I am sure this is not a use that Apple had anticipated the iPad would be used for!


Of course there are numerous reports, describing key emergent technologies and their potential impact on learning. The NMC Horizon reports, the OU UK’s Innovating Pedagogy reports, and the TED talks. I want to focus in on four examples: two videos on intelligent surfaces (‘A day made of glass’ and ‘Technology in education – a future classroom’), the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ and a recent article on ‘The most connected man’. I want to allow space for the audience to discuss these and to consider to what extent they are innovative and/or disruptive, as well as thinking about their potential use in a learning context.

I am then going to show Gartner’s most recent Hype cycle and point out that the Internet of Things is currently at the hype of the curve, whilst virtual reality is well down, and speech recognition software has reached the plateau stage.

Focusing in on disruption in a learning context I will look at three examples: the flipped classroom, mobile learning and open learning.

I will then introduce the concept of PLE+, beginning by listing the four things that are needed to facilitate learning:

  • Guidance and Support
  • Content and Activities
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Reflection and Demonstration

These can be achieved in a variety of ways of course and through different pedagogical approaches. The HoTEL project provides a nice visualisation of pedagogical approaches and their key features; so associative pedagogies are about stimulus and responses such as drill and practice, whereas constructivist pedagogies are about building on prior knowledge and are more task orientated.

The below lists the key characteristics of VLEs, PLES, and PLE+s

  •  VLEs: Institutionally owned, teacher controlled, digitally based
  • PLEs: Mix of institutional and cloud-based, learner controlled, nebulous set of components, digitally based
  • PLE+: Mix of institutional and cloud based, learner controlled, nebulous set of components, digitally and physically based.

Finally, drawing on the work of Gibson, Pea, Perkins, Solomon, Wertsch and others, I list the following as what I think are the characteristics of a PLE+:

  • Relates to concepts of distributed cognition and PersonPlus
  • We leave learning trails
  • Our learning  environment is culturally constructed
  • We co-evolve with our environment
  • Technologies have affordances
  • Blurring of physical and digital

I will finish by suggesting that we need new approaches to design to create effective PLE+ and will put forward the 7Cs of Learning Design as a means of achieving this.  Of particular note here is the fact that I argue that learners can use the tools associated with the 7Cs of Learning Design to create their own PLE+.